Monte Vesuvio (Mount Vesuvius) is perhaps one of the best known volcanoes in the world. (and undoubtedly one of the deadliest)
It can be seen from anywhere on the Gulf of Naples, and nowadays it's one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area.
3 million people call the lower slopes of Vesuvio and it's direct surroundings their home, and downtown Naples is only 15 miles (24km) away.
This mountain is not as much a climbing mountain as it is one that has changed the course of history, having killed many people in its frequent violent eruptions.
Monte Vesuvio was regarded by the Greeks and Romans as being sacred to the hero and demigod Hercules (After whom the town Herculaneum was named, nowadays known as Ercolano)
The earliest recorded eruption (A.D. 79) was described by Pliny the Younger in two letters to Tacitus; the eruption buried Pompei, Herculaneum, and Stabiae under cinders, ashes, and mud. Pliny the Elder was killed by the eruption, which he had come to investigate.
The 79 AD eruption is thought to have lasted for 19 hours, in which the volcano ejected about a cubic mile (4 cubic km) of volcanic matter. (about the same magnitude as the St. Helens eruption in 1980)
Most people from Pompei escaped, Herculaneum, on the other hand wasn't so lucky, it was in the path of most of the pyroclastic flows.
After 79 AD, the volcano continued to erupt every 100 years until about 1037 A.D., when it entered a 600-year period of quiescence. In 1631, the volcano killed an additional 4000 unsuspecting inhabitants. It was during the restoration after this eruption that workers discovered the ruins of Pompeii, buried and forgotten for nearly 1600 years.
The volcano last erupted in 1944, during the Allied battles for control of Italy in World War II.
The 79A.D. eruption
For the residents in and around the Bay of Naples, there was a calm of 100 years prior to the activity that prompted the eruption of 79. One can assume that there had been some tremors during this 'calm' period, so it is understandable that the residents were not concerned when the mountain began to rumble. I lived in Tokyo many years ago; there were frequent earthquake tremors which we took as calmly as if a large truck had passed by causing dishes to rattle. One gets used to the ordinary.
However the ordinary sometimes becomes extraordinary. Seneca reported that a large scale earthquake occurred on 5 February 62 (according to Tacitus) or perhaps 63 AD. This earthquake caused significant damage to both Pompeii and Herculaneum with minor damage in Naples where the emperor Nero happened to be performing in the theatre. Seneca wrote that the earthquakes continued for several days, probably referring to aftershocks. He wrote that the earthquakes became gradually less severe but nonetheless caused considerable damage.
Repairs from the earthquakes of 62 were still being made in Pompeii and Herculaneum seventeen years later when the earth began to shake again. There were many shocks. Dio Cassius (150-235 AD) wrote that several days before the eruptions of 79 there were earthquakes; the ground was groaning and 'giants' were roaming the earth. I imagine that several who had homes elsewhere left but, while the earthquake of 62 might have been fresh in their minds, an eruption had not happened for over 100 years. No one forsaw the disaster that would strike.
The eruption began the morning of 24 August, one day after the annual celebration of Volcanalia, the festival for the god of fire and forge, Vulcan. A cloud of ash and pumice 12 miles high shot from the central cone as if from a canon. Midday became like midnight as the city of Pompeii, just 5 miles from the volcano, was covered with six inches of ash and pumice within one hour. Herculaneum was even closer to the mountain but being upwind of the volcano it was covered with a light coating of ash. Around midnight, the column from the volcano collapsed and the mountainside was filled with a glowing avalanche of boiling gases, pumice and rocks which flowed over Herculaneum burying the city under 65 feet of hot volcanic matter. The town was sealed as if a layer of concrete had been poured over it.
The following morning, a fourth avalanche sent hot gases and more ash to bury Pompeii and its inhabitants to a depth of 12 feet. Other areas in the region such as Stabia and Oplontis were also buried in the ash and pumice. Pliny the Elder wrote, 'this district was on fire and had craters of fire and then because the fuel gave out, was quenched.'
Two more surges followed, the sixth and last, causing Pliny the Younger to flee Misenum as he and the other residents watched 'a fearful black cloud...rent by forded and quivering bursts of flame' move across the bay. The earthquake stirred up huge waves in the bay and fallout from the eruption covered the area with what looked like heavy dust. Misenum itself was not damaged.
Pliny the Younger's account to Tacitus
As i mentioned in the History paragraph, the 79 eruption was the first volcanic eruption in known history recorded by man.
The following excerpts are from an account written by Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus shortly after the 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius eruption. While it is common for us to think of this date as ancient, students may learn a great deal about volcanoes from this first-person account. In terms of the age of a volcano, Pliny the Younger's writings are really very recent. He wrote to record the events surrounding the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder.
On August 24 of 79 A.D., the area around Mount Vesuvius shook with a huge earthquake. The mountain's top split open and a monstrous cloud raced upward. The inhabitants of Pompeii were showered with ash, stones, and pumice. A river of mud was beginning to bury the city of Herculaneum. The uncle of Pliny the Younger, known as Pliny the Elder, was a commander of a fleet of war ships at Misenum. He decided to use his ships to rescue people close to the volcano. The nephew describes the huge cloud towering over the area:
. . . its general appearance can best be expressed as being like a pine rather than any other tree, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.
Pliny the Elder's ship approached the shore near Pompeii.
Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames . . . Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.
But they could not land because the shore was blocked by volcanic debris, so they sailed south and landed at Stabiae. Hoping to quiet the frightened people, the uncle asked to be carried to the bath house. Afterward he lay down and ate. Next, hoping to quiet the inhabitants, he went to bed. The volcano did not do likewise, however.
By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice-stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never had got out. . . . They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside on the other hand, there was the danger of falling pumice-stones, even though these were light and porous. . . . As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.
Finally, the uncle decided to leave. The level of ash and pumice-stone had risen to the point that a hasty departure seemed the best option.
. . . the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up . . . then [he] suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed . . . his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.
Later, Pliny the Younger and his mother leave Misenam to escape from the approaching volcanic conflagration. They travel across country to avoid being trampled by the crowds of people on the road.
We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand. On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size. . . . We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying.
There are many ways to get to the mountain, although expect to pay through the nose. In recent years they've closed off most of the hill, appearently because the volcano is getting active again. The only trail open for the public as of July 25th 2005 is the trail leading from the parking lot (3200ft/960 meters) to the crater rim at 3750ft/1140 meters. This will set you back 6.50 euro. There used to be a guide service to the actual summit at 4181ft/1274 meters, but apparently this is terminated. As of July 2005 the furthest possible point is a souvenir shop overlooking Pompei at a the crater rim.
Busses leave from the piazza in front of the Ercolani Scavi (Herculaneum) station on the Circumvesuviana train line. Busses to the volcano leave approximately once per hour until about 2:00 P. M. Return busses leave the volcano parking area on a similar schedule beginning at about 11:00 A. M. The last bus leaves at approximately 5:50 P. M.
The fee to use the one mile/1700 meter trail from the parking lot to the souvenir stand on the crater rim is 6.50 euro.
Apparently because the souvenir sellers are convinced that the volcano is getting active, it's irresponsible to keep the trails around the base of the mountain open, just the one that makes a half loop around the crater rim with a average daily usage of 3000 and about 5 souvenir stands. (@ 6,50 per person) Parking pass is 2 euro, for which you're most likely to park on the shoulder of the road leading up the mountain. I haven't tried it, but i suppose it should be possible to summit at night. When the tourbusses leave, and the people working in the souvenir stands are on their way home, it wouldn't surprise me at all that the summit is completely deserted.
When To Climb
It is possible to go up Vesuvio year round. In the summertime your tourbus is most likely to be air-conditioned, in the wintertime it's probably heated. The trail to the crater rim isn't going to kill you either, before the nasty effects of hypothermia can set in you're probably back in the bus.
When you are taking a city bus up from Naples, make sure you have an extra sweatshirt with you, because public transportation in this area only has a timetable to look professional, not that they actually do something with it.
There isn't much to say about mountain conditions, besides the fact that breathing the air in Naples equals smoking 8 cigarettes, which problem you don't have on Vesuvio...
In the "Links" section i added two webcams and the link to the Meteo Campania, giving weather forecasts for the summit.
There is also a link to the Vesuvio Observatory, they keep an eye on volcanic activity.
Severe explosive volcanic eruptions are called Plinian eruptions, in honor of Pliny, since he was the first person in recorded history to write an eye-witness account of the eruption. A good modern example of a Plinian eruption would be the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.